If Only Democrats Could Do Populism

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Question is, why can't they? Take a few pointers from Rick Santorum, I advise in an article for BusinessWeek, or if that's too hard, maybe Bruce Springsteen. I see the Boss as the go-to guy on liberal populism. Shame he's not a politician.

Santorum's detractors cite his unusual opinions on the politics of gender and "artificial birth control" to paint him as extreme. But the source of Santorum's appeal is his skill at waging class warfare, Republican-style. His grandfather was a coal miner, he explains: "Those hands dug freedom for me." He wants to revive real jobs--blue-collar jobs--with zero corporate taxes on manufacturing. He's a Pennsylvania guy who's OK with declaring trade war on China. Romney, by contrast, is a plutocrat, a money guy. He's with Wall Street, not Detroit.

Santorum combines this proletarian stance--unusual in a hard-right conservative--with more familiar elements of GOP populism: patriotism, reverence for family, hard work and self-reliance, hostility to big government, and proud religiosity (to a fault, in his case). If not for the extremism on sexual politics, it would be a potent blend even beyond the Republican Party's social-conservative core. It's enough, given his rival's defects as a politician, to give Santorum a shot at the nomination.

The big puzzle, though, is that American liberals find it much harder than conservatives to be populist, even at a time like this. You'd think a country limping away from the Great Recession would be eager for a rush of liberal anti-elitism. Surely the American Left was best placed to take advantage of anger at Wall Street. Yet the main populist surge has come from the Right, in the form of the Tea Party and its new sweater-vested hero...

There's one person in public life who does manage to articulate an authentically progressive populism--and makes a killing doing it...

Liberals might take a second to notice what Springsteen has in common with Santorum and other conservative populists. There's no sneering at Joe Six-Pack in the Springsteen canon. He's very much a six-pack kind of guy. There's no condescension, no questioning that America is special, that it stands for something in the world. This is an idea that much of the country holds dear--and one that a lot of progressives roll their eyes at.

There's more to it than this--read the whole column, why don't you--but the main thing is not looking down on people whose votes you might like. Worth a try sometime. 



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Clive Crook is a senior editor of The Atlantic and a columnist for Bloomberg View. He was the Washington columnist for the Financial Times, and before that worked at The Economist for more than 20 years, including 11 years as deputy editor. Crook writes about the intersection of politics and economics. More

Crook writes about the intersection of politics and economics.

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